«Title of Dissertation: Community journalism as ritual: A case study of community and weekly newspapers in Laurel, Maryland Lindsey Lee Wotanis, ...»
are non-professionals, generally possess ―an intense desire to reassert local autonomy and defend particularistic identities in the wake of transnational media flows and the attendant homogenization of cultural forms‖ (p. 33). Howley‘s cases demonstrate the complexities and challenges involved in making participatory media work. The case of WFHB highlights the economic challenges that one community radio station in Bloomington, Indiana, faced and the content dilemmas those challenges created. For example, WFHB was a listener-supported radio station committed to providing the community with diverse programming while maintaining neutrality. As such, volunteers were often discouraged from offering personal, political and social opinions on air in order to keep happy their listener base. While this philosophy was ―a bulwark against overtly oppositional discourse,‖ he argued that this limited ―the range of ideas and opinions presented over local airwaves and thereby [reinforced] many of the same social, political, and cultural inequities a participatory medium like community radio professes to rectify‖ (p. 117). Community media, while often idealistic in their aims to be inclusive and to challenge the status quo presented by commercial media, often end up acting very much like the status quo because of social, political, and economic forces at play, as the WFHB case study demonstrates.
community media and community journalism, in Howley‘s view, should represent the underrepresented, give a voice to anyone in the community who wishes to express it, and ―create an alternative public sphere for marginalized constituencies within a geographic community‖ (2005, p. 185).
Studying Street Feat, a publication written and produced by the homeless and disadvantaged in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Howley noted that the newspaper ―not only provided a staging ground for identity formation, but also encouraged readers to understand their own subject positions in relation to those whose experience may be quite foreign, yet whose lives are nonetheless intimately connected to their own‖ (2005, p. 187). Howley‘s analysis of the different kinds of community media at work not only highlight the ways in which they serve to build and maintain communities, but also the power struggles and challenges inherent in the process (p. 259). He concludes that by challenging the very notions of what we believe community to be, ―we can better appreciate the central role communication plays in distinguishing communities by containing difference within unity while simultaneously forging a shared collective identity‖ (p. 259).
As shown, scholars offer different takes on just what is ―community journalism.‖ Just as there are many definitions of community, there are many ways to interpret community journalism. Howley‘s definition, however, would be more helpful if it distinguished between citizen journalism, a relatively new phenomenon by which ―the people formerly known as the audience employ the press tools they have in their possession to inform one another‖ (Rosen, 2008) and
produced by professionals but aimed at a very local or narrowly defined community with the intention of helping public life to ―go well‖ (Merritt, 1997;
In the late 1980s, many citizens and journalists alike became fed up with ―journalism as usual.‖ They felt that journalism was a public service and that professional journalists had a social responsibility to the public that they were not adequately fulfilling. A critical examination of the standard practices of the profession ensued and the Public Journalism movement took off in response. At the center of the movement was a concern for communities and finding ways to better involve citizens in their local communities, governments and institutions.
After all, communities—as discussed in Chapter 2—are the lifeblood of democracy, which requires an active citizenry and open dialogue. Public journalism set out to revive democracy via journalism, and in the process, also sought to reawaken communities.
Public journalism—A model for good community journalism The objective of community journalism, in my view, should be to support existing communities—as they are and as they could be—as well as foster a sense of community among readers. Communities are the foundation of democracy, and without active communities, the public sphere suffers. Community journalism represents an important faction of the ―fourth estate‖ and has distinctive responsibilities in making public life go well in the small towns across
example for how this can be accomplished.
At a time when many held the press to be a ―handmaiden to a cyclical process that was making a mockery of politics,‖ the 1988 presidential campaign was the breaking point (Rosen, 1999, p. 36). The Dukakis and George H.W. Bush campaigns focused on image rather than issues. The candidates were picking fights in order to get a good ―story‖ out of the press, and the journalists were accused of speaking ―‗a language common in Washington‘ but foreign to the rest of us‖ (p. 38). The state of journalism and American democracy was in disarray.
And Buzz Merritt, a journalist from the Midwest, made it clear that a public in
peril is a serious problem:
No matter the state of individual morals, the efforts of government, the structure of families, the rise or fall of the yen and the deutsche mark, the course of a menacing comet; if public life does not go well, if communities cannot act collectively and effectively to solve problems, Americans‘ fears about the future will surely be realized (Merritt, 1997, p.
The late David Broder, a prominent Washington Post reporter, spoke out in advance of the 1990 November elections: ―It is time for those of us in the world‘s freest press to become activists, not on behalf of a particular party or politician, but on behalf of the process of self-government‖ (quoted in Rosen,
finished his dissertation on the ―problem of the public.‖ He began engaging in talks with journalists who would listen about his ideas—what later became known as the public journalism movement. In the early years of the movement, its founders had a difficult time defining it. Rosen admitted in 1994 that ―we‘re still inventing it‖ and Merritt, in his book on the practice, argues that ―to codify a set of public journalism rules‖ would be an ―arrogant exercise, a limiting one‖ (Glasser, 1999, pp. 5-6). Merritt‘s newspaper, the Wichita Eagle, was one of the early experimenters in public journalism. Merritt (1997) believed that changing journalism was akin to shifting a culture—it would not happen overnight (and it
hasn‘t). Some of the required shifts include:
Seeing journalism‘s primary role as ―helping public life go well.‖ This means abandoning the long-held notion that journalism‘s purpose is to
Rethinking objectivity and detachment as cornerstones of good journalism, and thinking of journalists as ―fair-minded participants‖ whom he likens to referees in sporting events. The referee displays ―no interest in the final outcome other than it is arrived at under the rules‖ (p. 97).
Merritt contended that journalists should worry less about the need for separation from public life, and think more about the important
5 Broder would, six years later, renege on this point of view. He is quoted as saying during a symposium in 1996, ―I honestly believe that once we take on the responsibility of being the agent for engaging them, that we are in politics‖ (Glasser, 1999, p. 4).
even describing, ―what going right would be like‖ (p. 140).
Conceiving of people not just as consumers of news, readers or nonreaders, but as a public, ―potential actors in arriving at democratic solutions to public problems‖ (p. 140).
Indeed, public journalism required that journalists truly consider citizens as allies, as people capable and willing to participate in making changes for the better if only presented with the opportunities to do so. Public journalism‘s goal ―is not to better connect journalists with the community‖ though this is obviously a step in the right direction; its goal is to ―better connect the people in the communities with one another. So it is as much or more about public life than it is about journalism‖ (p. 142).
Several years later, Haas (2007) further refined and defined a ―public philosophy for public journalism‖ in which he stated that the ―journalist‘s primary responsibility should be to help bring into being a deliberating public by creating and sustaining an open-ended unbounded public sphere to which all citizens have access and in which all topics of interest to citizens and all opinions available can be articulated, deliberated, and critiqued‖ (p. 47). For Haas, the essence of public journalism is serving and giving voice to marginalized social groups (p. 6).
The movement failed to sweep through mainstream journalism. Rem Rieder, editor of American Journalism Review, complained at a 1995 conference that
done. Good reporters and editors know what matters to their readers.
They‘re in touch with their communities … Public journalism is a marketing ploy … It leads to boosters rather than hard-edged watchdog reporting‖ (quoted in Rosen, 1999, pp. 179-180).
He went on to argue that the failures of journalism were the result of staff cuts, and that to do more than inform on the news pages was ―dangerous‖ and would contribute to the already large credibility problems plaguing the industry.
Likewise, Nip (2008) concluded after studying the Savannah Morning News‘s news practices that the practices of civic journalism (a term often used interchangeably) were not integrated into the daily routines of the newsroom staff in reporting the news or engaging citizens in conversation and problem solving within the community.
The concept of the movement was solid and if adopted, could have made an impact, especially on community journalism; in fact, it is a wonder why more community newspapers were not more hospitable to the public journalism movement. Community journalism could benefit from adopting the principles of the public journalism movement. Rather than focusing on detachment, community journalism should value reporters‘ connections to the places they cover. Professional journalists are capable of being connected and at the same time, fair-minded. Community journalism also has local responsibilities and stakes in small government, and has the capability to revive and inspire democratic participation in communities. Community journalism would do well
community news as well as in local democratic life. The technologies of the 21st century now allow more direct participation from members of the community in collecting and reporting the news. Community journalism in Janowitz‘s and Nord‘s traditional view, as done by professionals, versus community journalism done by citizens, as in Howley‘s, Altschull‘s and Hindman‘s views, need not be mutually exclusive. Both professionals and amateurs can do the work of connecting the community via news production and dissemination. The question remains—who is doing it better?
As new technologies place communication tools—once previously accessed only by professional journalists— into the hands of ordinary citizens, the future of community journalism is brought into question. Access to the Internet now means access to an instant audience at little to no cost. Blogging has proven a popular mechanism for ordinary citizens to become commentators and journalists in their hometowns. And, as communities grow and community journalism staffs shrink, ordinary citizens turned community bloggers are beginning to do the work of reporting hyperlocal news to narrowly defined audiences, much in the spirit of the public journalism movement.
Community blogs—The future of community journalism?
Citizens are beginning to fill in the gaps where community presses are dropping the ball. For instance, in Laurel, a town of 100,000 citizens, even two competing weekly newspapers cannot possibly cover all of the parts and people of the community. As a result, several citizens have taken it upon themselves to
newspapers shrink—literally in size, content, and staff—the Internet provides unlimited space for interested citizens to cover or comment on their community‘s happenings and events. Active citizens maintain these websites, and through their networks of connections, establish a readership just as a community newspaper establishes subscribers. No longer is the community newspaper the sole source for local news. An examination of these websites, their relationship to the local newspapers as well as how they are perceived by locals in Laurel, appears in Chapter 7.
Citizen journalism has become a popular practice since the advent of doit-yourself (DIY) weblogs and mobile phones with Internet connections. But, citizen participation in the news process is not new, although the degree of participation has changed since colonial times. Letters to the editor reflect an active citizenry engaged in the press and in conversation with one another. Nord (2001), who studied early twentieth century Chicago newspapers, found that readers were actively engaged in conversations with newspaper editors, with the reading public, and with themselves (p. 251). The letters, sent to the editors of the Chicago Tribune and the Chicago Herald between 1912 and 1917 revealed ―a wonderfully active community of readers [and] an activity rooted in the social and political institutions of time and place‖ (p. 269).